Written by Tim Lewis
The production of evidence and our evaluation of it is central to the practice of policy debate. Our two previous discussions on the elements of contacting the authors who produce our evidence have focused on the general conceptual elements of contact and consultation as well as a set of tips and tricks to navigate that contact so that it is meaningful and engaging to the author. This final post in the series will take on a more difficult and controversial aspect in the event of author communication: In-round utility. I do want to preface this post with an important reminder that I am not attempting to produce a set of judgments on the in/validity of using email correspondence from an author as evidence; rather, it is my endeavor to set out the terms for that conversation and some of the essential questions, consequences, and concerns that are before this community as we head into another year of debate. These posts represent my thoughts after a long reflection on the many instances of author communication I have had in the past and the many instances of debate knowledge production I have learned about in my researching for this series.
Standards for Evidence
One of the unique aspects of policy debate is its increasing flexibility with what constitutes ‘evidence.’ More and more, poetry, music, Youtube videos, etc. are being utilized to increase both general and topic specific conversations relevant to this activity. Despite this influx, though, there has not been a clear consensus on how that evidence should be presented in a fashion that is standard, accessible, and compatible with the knowledge production format (academic writing, spoken word poetry, etc.) that produced it. Yet, at certain tournaments like the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) considers ‘personal communication’ between an author and a student to be “inadmissible as evidence.” However, there is no ‘federal’ set of terms to legitimize evidence types across all tournaments (let’s just say, across all those within the TOC bid system) as even the NSDA document notes that “This is a guide and is not a replacement for the actual rules (p1.).” Generally otherwise, then, the ‘accepted’ standard for evidence quality at a tournament (if there is any infrastructure regarding this at all) is typically a citation that includes the author, credentials, date, and article title (and a URL depending on the kind of resource) to claim a piece of content as evidence.
This heterogeneity raises some problems regarding policy debate knowledge production and its consistency with ‘professional’ knowledge production. If the argument against using personal communication as evidence is purely because of the information’s lack of wide publication, then what is the standard for communication versus an ‘interview’? Further, why does this matter in a world where self-publishing is becoming an increasing part of academic and cultural life? Further, NSDA guidelines do not have a scholar or relevant expert assess the legitimacy of the communication between the author and the student—instead, the judge in the round makes a decision based on their own standards for evaluation. Lastly among this set of issues is the dilemma of stifling critical thought and discussion; indeed, sometimes ideas are difficult to understand, written badly, and/or need a certain degree of clarification and context to help non-experts be able to understand and interpret content.
In looking at one of the few academic articles published on the topic as it specifically relates to policy debate, I want to turn to Dale Herbeck’s article, “Debate Scholarship: A Needs Assessment.” While the article itself is mostly concerned with the importance of debate coaches writing about debate pedagogy as it is practiced, Herbeck raises the important point that thinking about policy debate cannot be divided into the presumed camps of “teach[ing] our students how to win debates or how to think critically and argue effectively. It suggests that there is a difference between formulating, researching, and assessing arguments and the actual practice of debating (p.3).” This false dichotomy is at play in the presumption that personal communications cannot be critically generative to any area studies discourse (truly, on many more than one occasion, scholars I have spoken to have told me that ‘you know my work better than I do,’ which I imagine is not something uncommonly heard from other members of this community who have contacted authors).
Herbeck goes further, though, and makes an important observation for this post. Herbeck argues that the increased focus on techne as the deciding factor in debate round—i.e. ‘debate for the sake of debate.’ While this idea has a wide set of implications for many different aspects of the activity, I want to focus on its implication for evidence production. If we are to begin to view evidence production as a central element of debate as a practice of scholarship, then it is possible that we can begin to avoid Herbeck’s concern about the death of critical source evaluation:
Sources are seldom introduced with the evidence, infrequently discussed during a debate, and all too often the qualifications of the sources are not available at the end of the debate. In many debates the citation is reduced to a name and a date. Even when courses are known and provided, debaters seem unable or unwilling to critically evaluate evidence. As a result, all sources are given equal weight, regardless of their expertise or ideological bias. I routinely hear debaters quote freely from The Plain Truth, Lyndon LaRouche, and The Socialist Worker. The rigorous work of respected scientists is often treated with the same respect as a phrase or sentence fragment from a local newspaper or a flyer passed out in an airport. Such evidentiary practices are alarming, for they suggest little understanding of how claims are justified. (p.10).
Thinking through this deeply and with care, what is more ‘rigorous’ and demonstrative of ‘understanding of how claims are justified’ than communicating with the individuals who made the claims and bringing their justifications back to the community? Many coaches and graduate students have taken-up Herbeck’s call to produce debate pedagogy—from Christopher Lundberg’s articles on the psychoanalytics of rhetoric to Brendon Bankey’s thesis on alleged misuses of Fanon in policy debate, this work is being done in a meaningful way. However, it does not address the real aspect of competitive use of debate pedagogy in-round and/or the consequences of that use. To further this point, I want to draw a comparison between the kinds of evidence produced by the policy debate community and the kinds of evidence that could be produced as a result of author-student communications.
There are three core domains of debater-produced knowledge that I would like to discuss. The first group is represented through the case of members of the debater community who coach and write what could be considered ‘objective’ knowledge (i.e. published articles on debate pedagogy). The second group is composed of people who (in one way or another) are affiliated with the debate community, but only write on their specialized topic area—for example, Andrew Culp of Dark Deleuze fame was at one point affiliated with UMKC and their paradigm can still be found on Tabroom.com. The last group involves debate coaches writing about debate for instructional purposes outside of the formal academic structures of the publication process—here, I am thinking of resources like HSImpact, The3NR, my blog posts on Exodus Files etc. As a slight detour, I will not be talking about the possibility of evidence produced for and in debate internet forums as that is its own unique circumstance that might get a different kind of spotlight feature at a later time.
Representing the clearest version of Herbeck’s insistence on the importance of debate pedagogy production, I want to start with scholars who write about debate practices. Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley’s excellent 2008 dissertation on the discipling of black bodies in policy debate is essential for any teams that want to critique the ways in which performance in the activity (and the activity itself) operates in terms of violent racialization. In a slightly different way, while Chris Lundberg’s 2010 and 2012 articles are not specifically engaged with policy debate as a direct activity, the evidence does bring in larger evaluations of how the rhetoric of policy formation occurs at a psychic level. As such, these contributions seem beyond appropriate and useful for the activity at a competitive level because they address the meta-cultural elements of policy debate. Similarly, debate coaches writing about debate practices in a way that is consistent with best-practices methods of knowledge production (sourced, accurate, cohesive in logic chain linkage, etc.) should be understood as operating in good faith and should have their ideas engaged tested by debaters in-round.
These authors are similar in quality to scholars who have participated in debate, but have written in other fields. Members of the debate community who no longer participate in weekend-by-weekend activities still do produce large bodies of scholarship relevant to debate. In addition to Culp’s philosophical work, debaters like Stephani Spies (Northwestern) and Sarah Weiner (Berkeley) have gone on from debating to edit very useful collections on nuclear weapons and arms control for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. However, in reading their writing and curation, one can find small remnants of ‘debate-speak.’ The third group of authors are coaches who are writing in purely editorial capacities—from ScottyP’s beef with the wording of the arms sales topic to the many questions and lessons that Batterman posted on The3NR, this kind of knowledge production functions to express contemporary ideas on how debate is happening in the veritable ‘now.’
One example, though, where I feel non-peer reviewed/self-published evidence of this kind should not be acceptable is in the case of articles from debate coaches that assess a topic as it is happening. This is not to say that there is something inherently nefarious about these articles and blog posts; rather, I am suggesting that they do not constitute evidence. Take ScottyP’s posts on the problems with the arms sales topic, for example: There is a lot of detailed research and analysis in the piece, but that does not mean that it should constitute any type of definitive statement about the topicality of certain plans, the scope of neg ground, etc. Understanding these differences will be essential if you plan to use any resources like this as evidence.
With all of that said, where does this position knowledge produced by debaters through their communications with authors? I think that there is strong precedent for the legitimacy of evidence produced through email correspondence between students and authors (although, I do not think phone conversations will really be able to meet the same standards because they are rarely recorded word for word) based on the continuing history and tradition for debate community members to write about debate. If the Ericson evidence is still widely used, then I think that there is little issue to evidence from an email that is able to demonstrate a good faith attempt at clarity in knowledge production (i.e. the absence of the debater-isms like ‘what would an external disadvantage to a reduction in drone sales to Saudi Arabia look like?,’ etc.)). However, this comes with the important caveat that the email also contains proper citation, demonstration of consent to publish, and be presented at the very least on the team’s debate wiki (although I am aware that disclose is becoming an increasingly controversial standard of practice).
Importantly, we cannot be casual in our approaches and interactions with knowledge production. Even more importantly, we need to be careful when we read evidence that may or may not contain sensitive material, leaked information, articles that are no longer accessible, or that does not have consent of all parties to be published and widely distributed. Our seemingly innocent research actions can have serious legal and financial consequences, trust me on that one! I have had to speak with supervisors, agents of the Department of Defense, and ‘Media Relations’ people because either someone did not want me getting in contact with an author or I (and the greater public) should not have had access to any of the information produced by the author in the first place. With that in mind, I do want to take a moment to discuss the importance of consent in publication from both the academic and the personal domain.
It is important to remember that when we contact scholars, it is unlikely that they are under an impression that we will take our full email conversations with them and transform them into a debate Pokémon card to deploy against our opponents. Unless otherwise stated to them, authors will generally be replying to you because they want to assist you in your learning and scholarly development—not so that you can win a round. If you do want to produce evidence from these conversations, the first thing you should do is ask the author if that is something they are comfortable with doing. In a lot of cases, authors are selective with whom they conduct formal interviews with because of a great many factors including time, reputation, impact, money, contracts, and future projects. In being upfront with an author before you have asked any questions, you can establish credibility with them in a new and more extended way than you would otherwise—perhaps, even, you could build a research partnership through this seemingly simple gesture of asking for consent to conduct a short interview.
Lastly, though, in the midst of all of this discussion of ethics, consequences, and consent, there is a strong problem: Where should evidence produced via personal communication with authors be stored? Surely, this information should be accessible to the entire community as soon as it is read in a debate; yet, there is no clear resource or agent that is designed to curate such an archive. In this disorganization, student-scholar knowledge production can be lost and made irrelevant. This bridges a larger issue, though, because of the responsibility including likely expenses involved in maintaining such a repository. As a community, we need to begin to think about the ways in which we choose to allow, participate in, and record communications between authors and debaters—as the activity becomes increasingly digitized and directed research in knowledge becomes less and less accessible, these are increasingly urgent questions that the community needs to begin discussing.
What is likewise essential in this matter is the continued striving of debate students and coaches to seek out the most nuanced depth of argument that they can access. The passion and dedication that goes into argument production should never be discounted or given a diminutive status. Reaching out to authors can bridge individual researchers (and potentially the entire community) into new aspects of study that we would have never had access to otherwise. The absolute worst thing that can happen is that we stop talking to each other and stop trying to reach out in our learning.
Herbeck, Dale. "Debate scholarship: A needs assessment." National Forensic Journal 8, no. 1 (1990): 1-15.
NSDA. (2017). “LD, PF, and Policy Debate Evidence Rules — Guide for Judges”